Really Bad Table Manners
Posted by Christie Kelley Oct 24 2012, 1:00 am
Today, please join me in welcoming Kate Dolan to the lair. In addition to being a fantastic friend and critique partner, she has a fabulous Regency Christmas novella out, Change of Address.”And I can attest to the lack of table manners in her books. I do believe there was a roll being thrown at someone during a dinner scene in this story.Welcome, Kate!
All of my books seem to involve someone behaving badly at the dinner table. While I should probably explore this phenomenon with a psychologist someday, for today I’m going to examine the bad behavior from a historical perspective and look at some really bad table manners from the past.
Just how realistic is the depiction of a medieval banquet with burly men at the table belching, scratching themselves in rude places and throwing bones to the dogs on the floor? Probably pretty accurate if you believe that society doesn’t come up with a prohibition until someone’s already done the thing being prohibited. A wildly popular etiquette manual published in 1530 admonishes those sitting at a banquet to “not throw bones or similar left-overs under the table to litter the floor.” If you have to tell people not to, do it, someone was doing it. The next sentence in the manual, On Good Manners for Boys, by the Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus, tells the reader that it is in poor taste to offer food from the table to the dogs and even worse to pet the animals while eating. So the dogs were there, just as hopeful as mine are today when they park themselves on the floor under the dining room table.
The fact that manuals like this existed and that they went through so many printings tells us that times were changing. Men might have still been throwing bones on the floor and scratching their crotches during dinner, but some of them were beginning to think that maybe they shouldn’t be. A French guide to courtly behavior written at about the same time as Eramus’s book lists as one its first rules “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.” And when eating, not only could men no longer scratch the parts of the body “not usually discovered,” they weren’t supposed to scratch at all. “Being Set at meat,” the French guide continues, “Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there’s a Necessity for it.” (In case a banquet attendee wondered about the appropriate way to blow the nose, Eramus devotes a couple of paragraphs to nostril maintenance in his manual.)
Let’s return to the banquet table. To “set the table” means to literally set up boards on trestles to make a surface for the food to sit on. What about place settings? Guests had no need to worry about which fork to use first, since most Europeans didn’t use forks at all yet. Erasmus says the cup and “small eating knife” should be placed on the right and the bread on the left. He mentions “spoonfuls of soup” elsewhere in the manual, but does not tell us where to put the spoon. But perhaps the guests were so busy trying to curb the urge to scratch and throw bones to the dogs that they paid no attention to the proper location of the spoon.
What about the belching? Neither of the guides I examined either condemns or condones the behavior. Does that mean it wasn’t happening? I will let any of you who have dined with members of the male sex make that determination for yourselves. I can only assume it was not yet considered an undesirable behavior.
Erasmus observed that in some places, it was the custom for boys to stand while the men sat at table to eat. He makes no mention of women and girls whatsoever anywhere in his discussion of banquet manners. One can only assume then, that these banquets were not much fun.
What do you think the women and girls were doing while the men were belching and throwing bones on the floor? Were they there but simply not worthy of mention? Did they only eat with the men on special occasions? Or did they simply have enough sense to eat some place without the scratching, belching and bone tossing? And is that why we still have “man caves” today?